Reducing social aggression among girls

Social aggression refers to behaviors that are intended to harm friendships or social status, it includes social exclusion, friendship manipulation and malicious gossip. Although both girls and boys engage in it equally, girls may be more hurt and worried by it because it harms what they value most – their close relationships. Research indicates that both aggressors and victims are more likely than other children to be rejected by their peers and to report loneliness, depression and anxiety. They may also be at greater risk of eating disorders.

Marion K. Underwood, University of Texas/Dallas, reports in her recent book Social Aggression Among Girls that educators and parents should capitalize on girls’ verbal skills, social intelligence, empathy for victims and distaste for perpetrators when attempting to prevent or reduce such aggression. Underwood points out that intervening is challenging because these behaviors are often subtle and occur in settings to which adults lack access.

Current research offers clues for effective intervention with both girls and boys. Experience with bullies has revealed that it is important for adults to communicate explicitly which behaviors are unacceptable and hurtful. When children realize that adults view the behavior as wrong, they are more likely to seek help. In Underwood’s opinion, parents need to be sensitized to the fact that children can learn these behaviors by observing certain marital or other conflicts in which adults give one another the silent treatment, enlist others to support their point of view in a conflict, or threaten to terminate the relationship and withdraw love and affection. Research also reveals that children who are socially aggression often assume others are being hostile. Techniques borrowed from Cognitive Therapy can help children to make more positive assumptions, entertain alternative interpretations of others’ behavior, and recognize their own automatic, highly negative thinking.

Underwood states that girls could be taught to express their needs and goals more directly and to accept conflict as a natural, healthy part of close relationships. Parents, teachers and counselors can discuss more explicitly how social aggression hurts the victim, reflects badly on the perpetrator, and undermines everyone’s trust in their peers. She also suggests that it would be beneficial for girls to participate in a wider range of group activities (drama, musical groups, service organizations etc.) at a younger age so that they have more diverse opportunities to belong to a group. In one Australian study, girls said the number one reason for engaging in social aggression was to alleviate boredom. Discretionary time could be more constructively spent in voluntary group activities, writes Underwood.

Peer intervention is promising strategy

Peer intervention is one of the most promising strategies for interrupting social aggression among girls. Girls’ interpersonal and verbal skills enable them to intervene effectively. Research on bullying has demonstrated that children can be taught to assume other roles besides bully or victim. For example, they can act as defenders in bullying situations. High-status children, in particular, more often assume the role of defender. Such peer intervention is important because social aggression often occurs in contexts without adult supervision. Underwood concludes that girls expect more intimacy, loyalty and dependence in their relationships than do boys, and are more supportive of interventions to reduce peer harassment. Their strong verbal skills and high social intelligence help them think through complex social situations. Creatively capitalizing on girls’ skills and empathy can enable them to intervene to reduce social aggression.

“Preventing and Reducing Social Aggression Among Girls”, The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, Volume 19, Number 12, December 2003, pp. 1, 3-4.

Published in ERN February 2004 Volume 17 Number 2

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